VA to Hire Almost 2,000 Additional Mental Health Staffers

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In 2010, FRONTLINE told the story of one platoon as its members transitioned home after serving in Iraq. Watch The Wounded Platoon in its entirety here.

Good news arrived this week from the Department of Veterans Affairs: It plans to hire 1,900 mental health workers, consisting of of 1,600 clinicians and 300 support staff, adding to its current roster of 20,600 mental health employees.

“The mental health of America’s veterans not only touches those of us at VA and the Department of Defense, but also families, friends, co-workers, and people in our communities,” said VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel in a press release. “We ask that you urge veterans in your communities to reach out and connect with VA services.”

In 2011, the VA provided mental health services to about 1.3 million veterans.

Dr. Petzel’s remarks touch on some of the major issues facing American servicemembers — and those who support them — as the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan slowly come to a close. The conflicts’ signatures include multiple tours of duty — the Army estimated that more than 107,000 soldiers have had three or more deployments — an epidemic of soldier suicides and “invisible” wounds like post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] and traumatic brain injury [TBI].

There’s also the institutional stigma– read: perception of “weakness” — of asking for help.

“I think a lot of soldiers came back, and they were trying to suppress the PTSD,” Robert Alvarez, a former Marine and psychotherapist, told FRONTLINE in an 2010 interview for the film The Wounded Platoon. “I think as we go forward here today in 2010, we’re recognizing a lot more of these cases.”

But Alvarez also says there’s “still not enough proper treatment,” and that clinicians over-rely on pharmacological solutions — antidepressants and antipsychotics.

The VA’s new staffing plans, which also include additional workers for its crisis hotline and disability benefit departments, were widely praised, though some have voiced concerns.

Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis told Stars and Stripes that the group is has questions about “where the new specialists will be assigned and ‘how they are going to recruit so many mental health practitioners when there is a nation-wide shortage.’” Currently, according to an investigation by USA Today, 20 percent of psychiatry positions in rural areas remain vacant.

There’s also controversy about a tool the military is increasingly turning to for mental health counseling due to staffing shortages: the Web. Last year, we interviewed Megan McCloskey, a Stars and Stripes reporter, who profiled a veteran’s desperate act to get the mental health services he needed: holding hospital staffers hostage at gunpoint.

The soldier, Iraq war veteran Sgt. Robert Quinones, was offered 10-minute counseling sessions via videoconference by the VA. And while this type of therapy does work for some veterans, many find it to be problematic.

“Many of those who need more intensive counseling for PTSD or depression don’t like the impersonal nature of talking to a TV screen,” McCloskey told FRONTLINE. “For some, telemedicine doesn’t meet their needs and adds to their sense of isolation.”

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